Fathers play a crucial role in a child’s physical and psychological development; they establish authority, confer identity, provide security and affirm potential. Much like the fictional character ‘superman’, fathers are the real-life heroes to most children; no mountain too great to conquer, and no challenge too great to overcome.
Given the choice, we would all choose to be born into and grow up in a happy and loving family where both parents are available and get to see us turn into productive members of society. But the reality is far from this ideal existence. More and more children are growing up in single-parent families and in most cases, the absent parent is the father.
A 2019 report published by Transform Nations under the Man Enough programme shows that 45% of children in Kenya are living with one or no parents. The report also indicates that out of 3,000 interviewed people, only 20% had a good relationship with their father. The rest said their fathers were not involved in their lives, or they had never met them.
In a story published by the Nation quoting the report, Kenyans experiencing a crisis with their dads can be categorised into three groups; the unfathered, under-fathered and misfathered.
The first category has never had a father, the second has one but he does not play an active role in their lives, while the third group has an abusive, violent father who, in many cases, is a drunkard.
While many upright members of society are raised in single-parent families, the absence of a father in a child’s life can have far-reaching and diverse effects. From a person’s sense of self-esteem, how they form relationships in their adulthood, the kind of parents they become themselves, to criminal tendencies and delinquency; the effects can be generalised yet experienced uniquely by the individual.
In many cases, children blame themselves for their father’s absence, especially if these absentee dads are alive and well.
However, the question begs: Is it better to grow up without a father, rather than grow up with an abusive one? And can the role of a father be filled by other father figures in a child’s life?
DN2 Parenting had a chat with some young adults who grew up with absent fathers and asked them to share their experiences.
Benbellah Omondi, 27 – Human Resource Officer
The man I am today as a thriving father and is a mystery that baffles many of my kinsmen in the village who swore that a boy without a father would grow up into no more than a useless village idiot.
I don’t loathe them for prophesying a dim future for me because, in truth, growing up without a father is no walk in the park.
I am a university graduate, I have a stable career, a family, and whatever it is that tradition considers a success, but it was not easy getting here.
My parents separated while I was just a little boy and I was raised by my mother. I only knew my dad by his absence and it was not until my adulthood that I put a face to the well-pronounced ghost he was in my life.
Reflecting on my life now, I realise that I could have easily become what many had foreseen in my future, or worse – a criminal without restraint or regard for life or honour.
In my view, this is because a father plays a crucial role in shaping the morals and character of a son. Unlike mothers who treat their sons with gentle love, fathers naturally raise their sons to be tough and responsible.
I found it very hard to break out of the cocoon of my mother’s love and begin fending for myself. My mother often encouraged me to take the easy way out and avoid at all costs, what puts me at risk, even if it means staying in her house forever.
The society was very harsh on me for not being a natural reality to them. The fact that many, even my own relatives, did not imagine I would prosper just because of lacking a father really stressed me. On many occasions, I wanted to give up because I felt incomplete.
Being my mother’s only son seemingly added salt to injury because she was not prepared to let me become my own man. I could tell that she wasn’t prepared to let me start my own family and become someone else’s ‘husband’.
Thankfully, I have always been a staunch Christian and the void that my father left was filled by spiritual fathers whom I have always looked up to. Whereas my mother did a fantastic job raising me, these fathers taught me what it means to be a man and for that, I count myself lucky.
Haifa Maremma, 18 – Student
My parents separated when I was just six. At the time it did not occur to me what that meant for my mum and I, but now I know differently. You see, as time progressed and my understanding of life expanded, thoughts as to why my father left started coming to me. I started questioning myself, wondering what I lacked as a person that made my dad not want to stay in my life.
As much as I now know that whatever happened was not my fault, it is still difficult not to be self-critical at times. I keep wondering how life would have been if he stuck around.
Besides this, having a father who is not in my life as much as I would wish has made me question the idea of family extensively. I have utmost respect for mothers who raise their children on their own, as they pull all the strings and go out of their way to provide for them. But as much as this is a good thing, it can be quite a draining and delicate balance to maintain.
I also find that I have developed a distaste for parenthood. Do not get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for my parents for trying their best to shield me from whatever issues there may be between them, but I would not want my own child to go through what I have. I feel that perhaps if only my dad was more involved in my life and there was better communication between the three of us (him, mum and I), I would not have to feel obligated to pick a side at times.
Children are a blessing, I love them, but I have consciously made a decision not to have any of my own. I do not know if my opinion will change in time, it remains to be seen, although I am doubtful I’ll change my mind. Separations are never planned and we all hope for the best, but I would hate to bring a child into this life only for them to be constantly shoved back and forth as I have. I would rather not entirely.
Whitney, 23 – Real estate agent
Sweet nicknames, dolls, chicken and chips, and long happy drives on weekends; these are the only fond memories I have of my father, and I hold onto them like a drowning man clasps a straw of grass. These are memories of a father who was once my best friend. I can hardly recognise him now.
I cannot recall exactly when things changed between us as I was still too young to comprehend, but I feel like he blamed me for his failed marriage, and saw me as a constant reminder of his heartbreak. My mother left me and my dad when I was just three months old, according to my grandmother who raised me.
At first dad took to it well, trying his best to fill the gap and look after me. But somewhere in my early primary school years, things took a drastic turn. He fell in love with another woman and got married, and before long they were blessed with a son. All the attention he used to give me diverged to his newfound family.
Suddenly all he had for me was hate and anger, feelings and memories all too well engrained in my mind. His presence at home became scarce, the only time I could hear from him was when he called his mother (my grandmother), and even then he would refuse to talk to me over the phone. I remember for the last two years of my primary school education, I never heard from him or saw him, he did not even bother to send me a card while I sat for my KCPE examinations.
As you can imagine, all this torment and neglect had an effect on me. First my mum, then my dad. I used to wonder whether I was cursed, always asking whatever it was about me that was so flawed that not one but both my parents abandoned me. They were not taken away from me by death, they are very much both alive, they just chose to leave.
In my teenage years, I became very bitter and dejected. Whenever I was not wandering in self-blame, I was cursing at my dad inwardly. He made me feel unwanted and ruined my sense of self-worth and esteem. It also messed me up mentally. Even after completing high school, I tried to make amends between us but he was not willing to extend an olive branch. What I have gone through has affected my relationships, and I have a deep-seated distrust of men. When I think about family and having children of my own, the first thing that comes to mind is the kind of father that I want for them. I do not care so much about getting married, but if it ever happens that I bear children, I want them to have a full life. A life where they experience unconditional love from both their parents.
I can compromise on having a man in my life, but the one thing I am not ready to compromise on is my children having a full-time committed and loving father.